Mona Golabek is a concert pianist. She is not, however, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” That honor belongs to Mona’s mother, Lisa Jura, who taught Mona and her sister the piano, as Ms. Jura’s mother had done for her. And, while the title of this tale sounds homey and benign, the story actually pays tribute to the resilience of a young girl whose parents chose to send her to England as a means of escaping the rise of Hitler in their hometown of Vienna.
Ms. Golabek has written an account of her mother’s journey and her subsequent struggles to gain the first-class education in piano performance that she had begun in Vienna. Now, Hershey Felder, himself no stranger to one-person performances about musicians, has adapted Ms. Golabek’s story and directed her performance of it. The production runs to September 28, and it is a must-see.
It’s a must-see not so much for any single element but rather for how cogently the production comes together. The story itself is superbly engaging, even if it borders on becoming maudlin at times. Ms. Golabek’s performance is charming, but she clearly has minimal training as an actor. She makes “Acting 101” errors such as dropping off volume at the ends of phrases, sometimes making key words hard to hear. She’s also a marvelous pianist, though her strength seems to lie in wringing aching emotion out of pieces with slow tempos through effective timing and strategic use of sudden dynamic variation. Her performances of the quicker, showier, repertoire were less effective.
One sees more than a little of Mr. Felder in how Ms. Golabek’s performance – and the production itself – is structured. The stage is used in a manner similar to Mr. Felder’s one-person performances, and the script is a mixture of spoken word and performance at the piano, in a manner similar to that used by Mr. Felder. The works performed are virtually never complete, and occasionally, there is taped orchestral accompaniment, to which the pianist (and/or the sound technician) must sync expertly. For the record, Eric Carstensen designed the sound, and it does sync exceedingly well with Ms. Golabek’s performance.
The production is also aided considerably by projections of archival photographs, which were designed by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal. These projections appear cleverly on the scenic design, by Trevor Hay and Mr. Felder. Christopher Rynne did his usual high-quality work with the lighting design, and Jaclyn Maduff was responsible for the simple but effective costume design.
The production comes to San Diego REP’s Lyceum Theatre from a New York run that garnered critical acclaim. Every performance of its run here deserves to be a sell-out.